THE PLAGUE did not wipe out untold millions nearly 1,500 ago when the Plague of Justinian swept through Europe, scientists have spectacularly claimed.
The Plague of Justinian preceded the Black Death by around 800 years, wiping out up to a quarter of the world’s population. The outbreak occurred sometime around the year 541 AD and lasted until around 750 AD when disease-infested rats entered ports around the Mediterranean Sea.
Historians estimate the plague killed somewhere between 25 and 50 million people, making it the deadliest pandemic of its time.
And its spread though the Mediterranean is believed by some to have contributed to the demise of the Eastern Roman Empire.
But an international team of researchers has questioned the dire estimates, suggesting there is no evidence to back the numbers.
The secret, one of the researchers said, lies in the natural landscape of a 6th century Europe.
According to historian Dr Adam Izdebski from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, the Plague of Justinian swept through the Byzantine empire.
The plague is said to have wiped out half of the population of Europe, striking along the coasts of the Mediterranean.
An outbreak on such a devastating scale would have taken a significant toll on the economic and cultural practices of the time.
For instance, Dr Izdebski argued the frequency of harvests would have changed in response to the dwindling population.
Tree logging and forestry would have similarly been impacted, forced to adapt to millions of people dying.
By analysing centuries-old samples of dust from lakes and wetlands, the researchers were able to determine whether the plague did indeed strike Europe.
Dr Izdebski told the Polish Press Agency (PAP): “The landscape reveals a lot of information about demographics or the history of wars because these are reflected in the landscape like a mirror.”
The historian studied dust samples – some many decades old – collected in Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey.
He said: “No one has ever analysed then from a historical landscape perspective.
“My observations show at the time of the alleged pandemic from the 6th to 7th centuries do not show a significant change in the landscape, which is tantamount to no major demographic changes.”
As a result, the historian does not think the Plague of Justinian killed as many people as some have estimated.
The study, which lasted six years, was presented in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The research was led by scientists at the University of Maryland in the US.
According to Dr Izdebski, the exaggerated estimates are likely the product of inaccurate chronicles penned at the time of the plague.
One account, for instance, described half of the population of Constantinople dying from the disease.
Dr Izdebski: “We have to, however, remember these are literary descriptions that exaggerated their depictions of reality.
Lead author Lee Mordechai also said: “It’s easy to assume infectious diseases in the past would have catastrophic results.
“Yet, we used every type of data set we could get our hands on [and]found no evidence in any of these data sets to suggest such a destructive outcome.”
These are literary descriptions that exaggerated their depictions of reality